Bellingham rejects cost-sharing agreement for county jail

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By Steve Guntli

Bellingham City Council rejected a cost-sharing agreement for the new county jail project.

At the council’s regular meeting on June 15, the council voted 6–1 against the cost-sharing agreement with Whatcom County, with only councilmember Gene Knutson in favor.

On June 9, Whatcom County Council passed a jail cost-sharing agreement 6–1, but council members expressed doubt that Bellingham council would approve it.

The agreement calls for a countywide ballot measure to authorize a .2 percent sales tax to repay $97 million in bonds to build and operate the jail. The total cost of the jail is estimated at $122.5 million.

The sales tax would go towards funding the jail for the first few years. After that, the cities would share 40 percent of the revenue generated from the new facility, based on each city’s population. The county and five other cities have already agreed to the program, but Bellingham council members have been reluctant to embrace the agreement, saying the sales tax would put too great a burden on lower-income citizens and would prevent Bellingham from raising sales taxes for the next 30 years.

State law allows up to .3 percent sales tax increases for health, safety and criminal justice. A .1 percent sales tax, approved by Bellingham voters in 2004 for jail facilities, is still in effect.

Bellingham mayor Kelli Linville expressed concerns that implementing the new tax would limit the city’s options when dealing with its own public health and safety needs.

County executive Jack Louws was pushing to get the measure added to the ballot for the August primary, but that deadline has now passed.

Bellingham City Council members emphasized they were in favor of the new jail, but the cost-sharing agreement needs to be revised.

Bellingham city attorney Peter Ruffatto proposed several principles to amend the agreement going forward, including equitable contributions to the operation and funding of the jail based on who uses the facility and prevention and diversion programs implemented into any funding agreements. Council member Michael Lilliquist added the agreement must allow Bellingham to address its health and safety needs.

Bellingham’s decision puts the ball back into Whatcom County Council’s court.

The current county jail facility houses 298 inmates and has been suffering from overcrowding. The new jail has been in the planning stages since 2011. When built, the new facility, located on Labounty Road in Ferndale, will have 521 beds, medical and mental health care centers, outdoor recreation space and special needs housing.

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